"Into Great Silence" is remarkable, unlike any documentary you will ever see.




In 1984, German filmmaker Philip Groning wrote the Carthusians, one of the most ascetic monastic orders in the world, asking for permission to come to their monastery, located in the remote French Alps, and document their rituals, tasks and daily life. Sixteen years later he heard back: they were ready.




Groning spent six months living with and filming the men who have devoted their lives to the order. The result is breathtakingly beautiful.




Without voice-over, with no explanation of the history of the monastery or of those who are there, the film is a long series of images, stunning in their stark beauty. Without a crew, and relying only on the natural light of the monastery, he manages to capture shots of hooded men walking in silence, always in silence, along vaulted corridors, sitting in isolation in spare rooms, chopping firewood, working in a sewing room, a soft, diffuse light spilling through high windows, penetrating the deep shadows.




Sounds, at first insignificant, begin to resonate in the stillness: water dripping from a spigot; wind in the tall trees in the distance; shoes scraping on stone; a bowl being washed after a meal; the tolling of the bell calling the men to prayer. Some lingering scenes are reminiscent of Renaissance paintings, lovely to behold.




What each of us knows with certainty is that we are given this gift called life, to shape and construct as we will. To choose to spend it cloistered in silence, an enduring great silence, embracing a religious stoicism that can seem oppressive, is a startling choice.




Consider how our contemporary lives are filled with noise &

the need to be connected; to have a phone or iPod filling our heads with sound; televisions ever on, as background noise; and the ubiquitous sounds of traffic and idle chatter ever with us. Absent Blackberrys, pagers and input we feel an underlying sense of unease, an abiding restlessness. Consider how rare profound silence is today.




Gradually we see and feel not only a contrast between the Carthusians and ourselves, but realize, as the film continues, that it is itself a meditation. There is no narrative arc, rarely does anyone speak, and when the monks do give voice, it is to chant and sing in haunting, barely undulating tones.




And Groning makes no attempt to answer any of the standard psychological questions that immediately come to mind: Who are these men and why have they chosen to live in this place apart? Instead, the filmmaker, without comment, merely allows us to observe, to immerse ourselves in the rhythms of their lives.




There are moments during this long film when thoughts intrude: Did this or that get done? What was said early this morning? Strangely, the film can seem a distraction. And yet, continually, the monks beckon, and incrementally the world begins to fall away. It's not easy. Half way through, several people gathered their things and left, likely wondering when something was going to happen. But, then, that's the point. A great deal is happening, all of it unspoken; we need only surrender to it.




The Carthusian order was founded in 1084 by St. Bruno of Cologne. Little has changed for the men who come to the monastery in the Grand Chartreuse. "Behold, I have become human. Join me in becoming God," is one of the repeated laments. It is a call to a journey that has stretched over centuries and one that is so deeply contemplative that it can only be answered by a very few. Ultimately it is a reverential search for a state of grace, beautifully depicted in his stunning film. "Into Great Silence" is its own journey.